When the call came a few minutes past 6 o'clock last Saturday night, painter Trenton Doyle Hancock wasn't completely surprised — he'd received a call earlier in the day advising him to stay near the phone at about that hour — but he was thrilled.
After all, the $30,000 Greenfield Prize is substantial enough to make a big difference in the life and career of an artist.
"It just helps to ease your studio situation," said Hancock, born in 1974 in Oklahoma and now a Houston-based artist who is the sixth recipient of the prize, which is funded by the Greenfield Foundation and administered by the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Englewood. "It was amazing."
Hancock admitted that he hadn't heard of the Hermitage or the Greenfield Prize before learning a few months ago that he was among the finalists for the award, which is rotated each year among the artistic disciplines of theater, music and visual art. The last visual art recipient, Sanford Biggers, unveiled his completed work, "Codex," last fall at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
The prize originated in 2009 with awards given in two disciplines, theater and music, the first year. Biggers won the 2010 prize; 2011's award went to playwright John Guare and 2012's prize went to jazz musician Vijay Iyer.
Valerie Cassell Oliver, head curator at the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, was one of three jurors making the selection this year.
Oliver has known Hancock for more than a decade, when he was a fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a two-year artistic residency.
"I met with Trenton at his studio and he showed me his work," said Oliver, who was at the announcement party last weekend. "He began talking about the story, all this different cast of characters that come out of the narrative, what you really find in terms of a conversation with more of a visionary artist. Here was someone who was part of the contemporary arts scene who was bringing this type of narrative to the table with this very striking work."
Hancock's work has an almost collage-like feel to it, with portions of the canvas excised and reapplied to the surface along with paint.
But, said Oliver, his work is also in transition. For some years he was focused on a series of paintings involving mythological creatures called the Mounds that were an amalgam of human and plant elements.
"He's left that mythology behind and now is focused more on himself as subject, self portraiture, elements of the self, visual aliases of the self that are pulling back," she said.
Hancock sees the new work as being more multimedia and likely incorporating film and special effects.
"What I want to do is a special-effects project where I become one of my characters which I normally would just paint," he said. "If I want to translate that into film, I don't even know really where to start. I need basically to go back to school in a way. There's going to be a learning curve of trial and error."
Hancock has two years to complete the project.
"I like the idea that there's this obligation, this gun to my head to do this thing, make this thing happen and make it good," he said. But having two years to complete it also is a good thing.
"There's time to learn, time to accrue knowledge, and do something very different than what I've been doing," he said.